Thursday, December 30, 2004

By the way, in case you were following the neck trauma saga, it took forever but my neck now feels fine. Thanks so much to all who wrote in with suggestions. And thanks very much to those who wrote in about my counseling post, too--if I haven't replied to you yet, I will over the weekend. ...Oh and hey, where is Krubner?
SEARCH REQUESTS! It's that time again. Here are some of the funnier requests that brought people to this little blog.

homosexual leopard
what can hold a lot of wild animals even when it can't be locked
explanation of the phrase anatomy if destiny
rat silhouette
looking at people's eyeball to find out if they are interested
i wanna get into the ivy league ivy league ivy league going crazy
what is the rhetoric strategy of Attack of the crab monster

everything about identity crises dc [sadly, I'm pretty sure this is a comics reference, not a reference to my perpetually crisis-ridden hometown]
determinism and elective surgery
expectations and desire for superheroic leadership
where is the place where the language of mankind was babbled
rock n roll creates society
canony girl
did romeo make bad choices [Yes. Next?]
original sin snapshots
bunion removal gone wrong
nostalgias fairfax
philosophizing aliens
merrymaking nudity
No, this is not a "good news" story. To the contrary, Coyne's experience confirms the deterioration of conditions in Iraq. She is confined, for security reasons, to Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone. That's been true for a long time; now her Iraqi colleagues for the most part dare not visit her there, because the terrorists are always watching those who come and go. Communication is by phone and e-mail. ...

What is remarkable, though, is that despite the mistakes of the U.S. occupation, and despite the ruthlessness and brutality of the terrorists, so many Iraqis continue to stand up on the other side. Coyne recently interviewed applicants for Fulbright grants, smart Iraqis willing to risk an association with a U.S. program because they dream of starting an Internet site, or a government watchdog organization, or a public health project. And when they are asked why they take the risk, they invariably answer, "Because it wasn't possible before."


Wednesday, December 29, 2004

VOLTAIRE WAS RIGHT. Every death is a catastrophe. Eighty thousand deaths--that is a catastrophe I can't even start to picture or apprehend. Eighty thousand claims against the property-owner, God.

Voltaire assumed we would be horrified by human deaths; and so he asked why we were created. Are we born just to die? What plan can this devastation imply?

To me the question works the other way. Why is this horrific? Because we are each, even when we do not know each other, worthy of love. Because we are each images of God. Because this horror is not what we were made for.

Death is not what we were made for. We were made for eternal life. We are right to be shocked by death; death is shocking. It doesn't matter what would help us survive: I don't doubt that acceptance of death would help us propagate our species. But death is wrong. This is wrong.

I don't think the "problem of evil" can be "solved." I think it can be lived through. I don't know that people who have sustained terrible losses in this disaster--or any of the tiny disasters that happen every day, the cancer deaths and the accidents that never make the headlines--should expect to comfort themselves on the cold bones of theology. I do think we can all try to "suffer with" the people we know who are most directly affected. I do think Jesus, in His cradle and on His cross, is with you if you suffer now. I do think what has happened to you is wrong, and that God knows it is wrong.

I don't expect that to help now. All there is now, is prayer.
POWER/FREEDOM: DEUS LO VOLT. Anthropomorfic. Lame. 360 words. Unrealistic in the extreme. Sorry. Setting up things I'll use in later stories, but, in itself, just kind of there. Anyway, here.
LYING IN THE GUTTERS, LOOKING AT THE STARS: Comics reviews. (In the Shadow of No Towers, The Golem's Mighty Swing, and Y: The Last Man v. 1 to be reviewed soonish.)

Daredevil v. 10: The Widow. Ooh, more on Daredevil's marriage, plus some neat stuff with the Black Widow, whom I'd pretty much ignored when she appeared fleetingly in other comics I've read. Here, she's fun, and Alex Maleev draws her really well. She looks Russian, at least to my uncultured eyes. (Maybe that's a low bar. Whatever. She's easy on the eyes, looks like her proper ethnicity, and looks nothing like the other women in the book. That's much, much better than most superhero artists do.) I did like this, although it's slight (which complaint will be a theme of this set of reviews), and you definitely shouldn't start here if you're looking to get into Bendis and Maleev's very cool run on Daredevil. It's probably the weakest volume so far, but that's still quite good if you're following this storyline. (You want to start with Underboss. It's a nice long storyline that mixes hard-boiled with spiraling superhero insanity. Great character work from both writer and artist. Beautiful pictures. Fun for New Yorkers, I should think.)

Human Target: Living in Amerika. Hrrrrmmm. Apparently this was the volume where the central conceit (Christopher Chance can impersonate anyone, anyone at all, thus his identity is breaking up under the pressure of the alternate identities he's assumed for his job) started to wear thin for me. First story is utterly predictable and lame, lame, lame. (I generally can't guess plot twists. Thus, if I can guess your plot twist, you have failed.) Second story is okayish but nothing special. Third story is supposed to be a lark, and is fun enough while it lasts, but again, no. Skip this. Go for Human Target: Final Cut instead, which I really liked. (Also, yet again this book is choked with captions. Please stop spelling everything out!)

Planetes v. 4. Aw, I love Planetes. Humanistic sci-fi manga; combines Golden Age wonder of space with contemporary political and existential sense of limits and loss. This was probably my least favorite volume so far, as a good chunk of it relies on this lame "kids are innocent of the compromises and sellouts of adulthood!" theory that I find dishonest about childhood, destructive of leadership, and harmful to people (and, in this case, animals) around the "innocent" characters. The ending, however, suggests that the next (and last) volume of the series will complicate this storyline. And, as always, Planetes has a keen sense that people bring our problems and our politics with us into space. Well worth your time, though you should start at the beginning.

The Pulse v. 1. Jessica Jones gets a column at the Daily Bugle. If that makes you say, "Uh, what?", then you are definitely not the target audience here. If, instead, you squeal, "Oooh! Is J. Jonah Jameson in this? What about Ben Urich?", then this comic will gladden your fangirl heart. I loved it. I'm in love with J. Jonah, and I don't care who knows it. This is a lightweight piece--and all the women look exactly the same, thank you, Mark Bagley, you can go home now--but it's got Jessica Jones! And J. Jonah Jameson! And it's about journalism! (And I feel like I'm on the "J" page from Animalia.) Anyway, I'm a complete sucker for journalism stories, and JJJ is my third-favorite superhero comics character ever (after Cyclops and Daredevil), and Brian Bendis is doing perfectly serviceable Bendis dialogue (nothing special by his standards, but better far than most of what you'll read). I'm practically petting the darned thing.

I will note that there's a lame moment where one journalist character thinks of her job as "bringing people together" or some such. (Can't be bothered to look it up now.) That's not what journalism mostly does. I'm wildly idealistic about journalism, but what it mostly does, when it's at its best, is divide people. It points out the truths people would prefer to ignore, and forces choices that societal comity requires us to avoid. The truth has rarely brought people together in the past; why should we expect it to do so now?

OK, off soapbox. I'm very fond of The Pulse, but honestly, it's not a great comic and if you don't swoon for journalism, Jessica, or Jonah, you should pass it by.

The Ultimates v. 1: Super-Human. I've said before that I don't really get the point of the Avengers. This comic plays up the "ill-suited group of messed-up characters have to work together" angle, but with much added cynicism and angst, so I am still left cold. Bruce Banner's character made precisely no sense. I did like Tony Stark, solely because he was an oasis of angstlessness. Dunno. A lot of the "updating" felt rote and "Saturday Night Live"-level cheap to me. New X-Men did a better job with the strains-of-leading-crazy-people thing, and Ultimate X-Men, while significantly stupider than Ultimates, was also more up-front in giving its readers their explosions amid the soap operatics.

When will the next Sleeper book come out??? I'm dyin' here, people. (Or Finder! Go read yourself some Finder!)
Every appealing soubrette
Reminds him of passionate blogwatches...

Agenda Bender on certain passionate failures of Susan Sontag.

Beaucoup Kevin has a contest I want to win. "I'm giving away a copy of Julius from Oni press. A re-imagining of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar set in the London criminal community, this was one of my favorite graphic novels of the last year and you can get my spare copy by telling me, in 35 words or less, what your favorite comics moment of 2004 was and why." I will be spending part of tonight knocking together 35 words in my basement, with hammer and glue gun. Via Oakhaus, I think. Oh right--the deadline is 12/30/04 11:59 p.m., so you (and I!) still have a chance.

More disaster relief links here and (easy donation for those with Amazon accounts) here. Second link via After Abortion. I'm going to take a bit of time this week to research different options, then send in my Christmas money. Really, even small donations do help.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Cold and raw the north did blow,
Out on a blogwatch early...

Agenda Bender: I don't rightly know how to describe this. I only know that I laughed, a lot. (Not really sure how his permalinks work. It's the post that starts, "Twas the night before Christmas...")

Dappled Things:
To the eyes of the world, that dark night, the infant would have seemed nothing remarkable, but with eyes of faith the shepherds recognized Him as their Messiah and Lord. Humility and faith -- the same gifts that enable us to look upon the Host, mere bread to the eyes of the world, and see with eyes of faith our Lord and our God, the Word made Flesh who gives His Flesh for the life of the world.

Old Oligarch: More praise for "The Last Supper" (although I should note that it was actually recommended by a bunch of different people--including, I think, Julian Sanchez--rather than by Netflix's recs system); also loneliness in the Christmas crowd, and seeking solitude with God. Cacciaguida adds more, including a fascinating description of a carol I'd never heard of before. (And thanks for the package! Did you get yours?)

Unqualified Offerings:
Even if dogs, sexual humiliation, or sleep deprivation don't rise to one's particular uninformed definition of torture, I assume we can all agree that being dropped on barbed wire or having a lit Marlboro jammed in your ear does.

That's a quotation from a post by Thomas Nephew. You should read Nephew's post in its entirety. I'm citing UO instead so you can see his framing of the quote, which is absolutely right.

And: How Christmas 2004 looks to new Christian converts. Neat. Via GetReligion.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

YOU'RE OLDER THAN YOU'VE EVER BEEN, AND NOW YOU'RE EVEN OLDER. Let's kiss off 2004 with two questionnaires that have been making the rounds of the rounds that I make.

Five favorite blog posts from 2004:
Easter in America
"Oh, How the Ghost of You Clings!": Notes on Watchmen
Not Exactly Natural (and sequel)--the queer story
...And I Will Sing of the Sun (sublimation)
Okay, you don't believe in original sin. Fine. But what do you call it?
The evening redness in the West--American stories

ETA: I can count!

Fiction: Best (needs least fixin' to be great): "Better At It"
Best (greatest disco potential): "Getting Fired"; I also really do think "Kissable Pictures" is going places.
Most underrated: I was kind of surprised nobody commented on "Better At It," which I think is pretty fabulous. ETA: Um, except for the person who did in fact comment on this story, and had several interesting and helpful things to say. Right. Very sorry.... I forget people I've met in person, too....
Most fun to write: "Desire"; "You Will Be Pulled Back" was also fun. If it only had a point....
Hardest to write: "Odysseus's Scar," which is still nowhere near acceptable. "Through the Years We All Will Be Together" was also horrible to write.
Most disappointing: "Odysseus's Scar"--I'm working on it, I swear. But PLEASE don't read it now. It is NOT ready for its close-up.
Most telling: "Odysseus's Scar," obviously. If you have ever wondered what I'm like in real life, just combine all of Cindy Greenberg's worst qualities with all of Justin Harlowe's. Oh, and I'm changing the title of this story. And adding another scene. And making the ending not suck. And stuff. Please, just avert your eyes....
PEOPLE WHO NEVER WILL BE MISSED: Last night I watched "The Last Supper" with the Old Oligarch (who fixed my DVD player--THANK YOU!!!!) and Zorak. It was hilarious. Basically, a bunch of lefty grad students have a tradition of inviting a newcomer over every Sunday for dinner and discussion. One night, due to a brokedown Mercedes (or Porsche? I forget), one of their number has to hitch a ride with a trucker, so he becomes the night's guest. He turns out to be... not the dinner companion they would have chosen ("Hitler had the right idea"). He harangues them for never acting on their beliefs--for being pushover wussy liberals. And he ends up dead.

And they get an idea.

They start knocking off all kinds of illiberal folk. The idea is, they'll spend dinner trying to convert the right-wing freak; if discussion fails, however, arsenic convinces just fine.

It just spirals from there. A more American, timebound, political-junkie version of The Secret History (also dumber, and funnier). I think this would be best with a gang of right-wing college types and a decent amount of alcohol. It's overacted in a way that detracts from the fun, but really, I was kept in stitches and in suspense more or less throughout. The ending is just perfect.
MARRIAGEDEBATE has a lot of cool stuff up that I keep forgetting to link here. So, some stuff:
A "right not to become a parent"?
bad advice
"Marriage is one way to recognize who is family, but..."
Awesome piece on "today's Manicheans" from--I kid you not--the National Catholic Reporter. Cats and dogs, living together, next on Fox...
Donor-conceived children talk about their experiences
"Nordic family ties don't mean tying the knot"

And a meaty, intriguing report: "What Next for the Marriage Movement?" Lots of very specific suggestions and areas where further work and research and discussion is needed. I'd love it if you all would take a look and let me know what you think.
CONSERVATIVES AND TORTURE: WHERE'S THE OUTRAGE?: Comments thread at Volokh Conspiracy. Argh, all of the posts I wanted to quote have disappeared since I first visited the thread. No clue why. Anyway, I'll be writing a lot more about this in the New Year, when the mills of journalism begin to grind once more. For now, Intel Dump has a lot of stuff here, and in links along the side of the blog.
YOU DON'T HAVE TO GO TO CONFESSION FOR FEELING LOUSY. "Part of the misunderstanding -- the main part -- comes from the confusion of grace with sentiment. Christianity is not, pace Schleiermacher, about religious feelings. I can be in a state of sin, and still feel very religious and "in tune" with God. I can likewise be in a high state of grace, and still feel barren and empty. My feeling and emotion tell me nothing of my relationship with God. Nothing at all. It's useful to remember the lessons of the mystics (especially John of the Cross) who spent long periods of time in utter desolation and complete lack of religious sentiment. Their great insight is that such periods are of the greatest spiritual value: because they persevere in prayer and good works not because doing so makes them feel good, but for love of God alone, with no eye toward any interior consolations that they would hope to receive. Because the motive is purer, the merit of such prayer is greater. Their prayer and good works have value even though they are accompanied by no pleasant feelings at all." (more)
TEN MYTHS ABOUT ASSISTED SUICIDE. Via Dappled Things. I still think this comment from Evangelium Vitae is one of the most profound statements on "mercy killing" issues generally that I've ever read:
True "compassion" leads to sharing another person's pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear. ...

...The request which arises from the human heart in the supreme confrontation with suffering and death, especially when faced with the temptation to give up in utter desperation, is above all a request for companionship, sympathy and support in the time of trial. It is a plea for help to keep on hoping when all human hopes fail. As the Second Vatican Council reminds us: "It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute" and yet "man rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the absolute ruin and total disappearance of his own person. Man rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to mere matter."

--Evangelium Vitae

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

IT'S THAT TIME AGAIN...: Jim Henley comments on my Santa-bashing posts from a couple years ago. He says Santa is, indeed, training in "skepticism" a.k.a. dissing God, but that the whole Santa thing is helping him see that kids all develop at their own pace. Also a nice note on Santa and taking joy in your kids' joy. The only thing I'd say to that second post is that from the kid's perspective it does look different: If my parents got me gifts, I want to be grateful to them, and happy in part because they did something for me, not grateful to some random reindeer-commando I'll never meet or hug.
WHO IS ATTACKING US? Profiling Al Qaeda. Really interesting. Via Unqualified Offerings.
GLIMMERS OF HOPE IN THE ARAB WORLD: Fareed Zakaria. Um, more glimmer-y than hope-y, but it's a low bar. Via Oxblog.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

EVERYONE HAS REASONS: This is a disorganized list of things I commonly hear at the pregnancy center for which I think I need better responses. I'm putting it here both so I can think more systematically and so that you all can send me any thoughts you might have. This is in approximate order of frequency.
1. God wants me to be rich and successful. Not said quite that bluntly, of course. But "doing what God wants" is construed exclusively in terms of education, job, housing, etc.--not in terms of, for example, chastity, or not killing one's baby. I don't know to what extent this belief is related to the whole "prosperity Gospel" thing. That whole idea is so weird to me (die in Christ in order to be reborn in Him? the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church? Bueller? Bueller?) that I have a hard time formulating a response.

I always, always try to ensure that women leave my counseling sessions feeling more in control of their lives, more sure of their own worth and strength, while nonetheless more committed to making sacrifices and seriously changing their behavior if that's what God is requiring (which it pretty much always is, given that these are almost always unmarried women coming in for pregnancy tests). And so I want a way to talk about the dangers of this "God wants me to do all the things I want anyway" mindset that also reinforces my clients' hope and sense of self, and I'm not sure I've found one yet.

One thing I do think helps with this mindset is pointing out how much drama sex is bringing into my clients' lives. Sex and men and missed periods and birth control and emotional upheaval--it all gets in the way. I remember the first time I used the term "drama"--echoing something I'd heard a bunch of clients say--and this girl's face just lit up, a real "click" moment.

2. On the first rungs of the ladder. This isn't a thing people say, so much as a position people find themselves in; and it's one of the factors most likely to make a woman seek abortion, at least in the demographics our center serves. Women and girls who haven't really got a foot on the ladder at all rarely consider abortion. They usually oppose it for religious reasons, so okay, they're resigned to dealing with a baby. But women who are on their way up--first generation to go to college, or finally gotten a good job, that kind of thing--those are the women who are knocked for a loop by pregnancy. They also oppose abortion for religious reasons. But having a baby means they've failed. It means they're derailed, thrown back into the ghetto cycle for another few years on "spin." It's the snake in Snakes and Ladders. The most common way of talking about their decision is: "I don't believe in abortion, I think it's wrong, but I just can't have a baby now." (Yeah, what a ringing endorsement of "choice." How empowering.)

There are some things that really do reach women in this situation: pictures of fetal development. Discussion of the emotional and spiritual issues in abortion (since most of these women really do want to be good Christians, and really do think abortion is wrong--but it's a wrong thing you can do, and maybe addressing that tangle is what I'm really struggling with). And talking about people I know who have seen their own career plans derailed by all manner of things. I try to point out that just about nobody ever has the career path she planned on at age twenty. And those personal stories of career upheavals and recovery do speak to women, because they're obviously honest. And also, maybe, because they hook pregnant women into a community of other people who are also dealing with obstacles--they make pregnancy just another subspecies of career upheaval, rather than making it a terrible and unique stigma that needs to be hidden. Other people have faced this kind of unexpected setback; you're not alone, you're not singled out for punishment. I get the impression that this sense of commonality matters almost as much as the basic practical reminder that people do in fact recover from big shocks to their life-plans.

3. I don't go to church; churches are full of hypocrites. Here I basically want to find a nice way of saying C.S. Lewis's line that's basically, "Hey, we'll fit right in!" Church as hospital for sinners, not award show for the sinless. It is very odd to me to hear this from, again, unmarried women who think they might be pregnant.

I've been thinking about these things a lot because the past month and a half has brought me a spate of difficult clients, and I really want to become a better counselor. Your thoughts are not only welcomed but strongly encouraged.
F.B.I. memorandums portray abuse of prisoners by American military personnel in Iraq that included detainees' being beaten and choked and having lit cigarettes placed in their ears, according to newly released government documents.

The documents, released Monday in connection with a lawsuit accusing the government of being complicit in torture, also include accounts by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who said they had seen detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, being chained in uncomfortable positions for up to 24 hours and left to urinate and defecate on themselves. An agent wrote that in one case a detainee who was nearly unconscious had pulled out much of his hair during the night. ...

Beyond providing new details about the nature and extent of abuses, if not the exact times or places, the newly disclosed documents are the latest to show that such activities were known to a wide circle of government officials. ...

The documents were in the latest batch of papers to be released by the government in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups to determine the extent, if any, of American participation in the mistreatment of prisoners. The documents are the most recent in a series of disclosures that have increasingly contradicted the military's statements that harsh treatment of prisoners happened only in limited, isolated cases.

I just want to objectify my blogwatch...

Dappled Things: The Vatican is doing reproductions of some of its classical sculptures in their original bright colors! Wow.

A big piece on the economic realities of immigration (both legal and illegal) from Reason. Very much worth your time. Via Hit & Run, unsurprisingly.

OK, who died and left the Florida Tomato Committee God? This is really obnoxious. (Also via Hit & Run.)

A theatre yesterday bowed to pressure from violent religious activists by cancelling the run of a play depicting rape and murder in a Sikh temple.

Two days after protesters smashed windows and tried to storm the stage at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, its executive director said that, faced with a repetition of the trouble, he could not guarantee the safety of his staff or the audience. ...

Stuart Rogers, the theatre's executive director, said afterwards that "very reluctantly" he was cancelling the last 10 performances of Behzti
(Punjabi for dishonour).

This is thought to be the first time a play in Britain has been halted during its run by violent religious protests and raises the question of freedom of speech.

That issue and sensitivities about religious hatred are high on the Government's agenda with the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill going through the Commons. If passed, it will contain a new offence of incitement to religious hatred, carrying a seven-year jail sentence.

The Bill is likely to run into trouble in the Lords, specifically on exactly what constitutes incitement. Religious jokes are exempt but whether a play such as Behzti would be deemed illegal remains to be seen.

more--this is not a test. this is real England really now.

Via Relapsed Catholic.
NEW FREEDOM HOUSE REPORT. Russia downgraded to "Not Free" for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union; modest gains in the Middle East and North Africa; more. Via The Corner.
APPARENTLY THE WARRANTY JUST RAN OUT ON MY LIFE: Computer crashed in a fashion so exotic I saw screens I'd never seen before. (Fixed now--thank you, Old Oligarch.) Sink and bathtub both need a fixin'. Fluorescent lights over sink, i.e. the lights I can't fix myself, burnt out. (Fixed now, at a cost of $6.) The ol' ratty jeans with a hole at the knee are now my "good pants." DVD/CD player broke.

And my neck hurts.

I mean, not like, "Oh, my neck hurts." That was yesterday. Today is more like, A sumo wrestler just sat on my neck. Or, A soap-opera vixen just smashed a vase over my head because I told her I wasn't her baby's father. Or, I just got rear-ended; which is especially galling since I can't drive. In short, my neck hurts a lot, from jaw all the way across my right shoulderblade. Motrin is helping a little but not much. All your suggestions are welcome. This has been a minor nagging problem for several days, and hot baths don't seem to do much, but today is just egregious. I can't open my mouth without pain. (And if this is God trying to tell me to shut up, you know, I'd really prefer skywriting.)
TORTURE'S PATH: Newsweek on Gonzales.
LATEST CHRENKOFF "GOOD NEWS FROM IRAQ" ROUNDUP. As always, there's some sunshine painted on the data to make okayish news look better, but just as a journalistic point I'll note that Chrenkoff is finding those little, unflashy, ten-point-headline stories that do in fact change many people's lives. In this roundup there's a ton of election stuff, plus anti-corruption efforts, computer education, the underground labor movement finally coming into the open, a trove of infrastructure-related links (including a Reuters story noting a U.S. shift from big splashy projects to smaller ones that get completed faster), and much more.
I know that I must watch your blog, although it dooms me,
Though it consumes me...

After Abortion has a lot of great stuff up right now, including college abortion/pregnancy policies and Democrats, pro-lifers, and shame. Go there!

Get Religion: "Help us out, readers: Do you have any favorite stories of forgiveness -- whether of seeking it or extending it?"

And dueling op-eds take on Richard H. Sander's claim that affirmative action in law schools has led to fewer black lawyers. Sander makes his case quite plausibly here, and Goodwin Liu replies here. Liu spends way too much time on the utterly unconvincing argument that aff. action must work, otherwise black people wouldn't keep supporting it, because people are rational actors who maximize self-interest. This is interesting except for the small problem that people are not rational actors who maximize self-interest. One of the many things for which we'll gladly sacrifice self-interest is self-image; Liu's later points speak more to that concern, as he argues that black students at law schools need, essentially, a posse of other BSatLS's so that law school achievement is more imaginable and attractive to them. Anyway, go read. I have not read the study that sparked this exchange, so I won't try to comment further. (Both links via How Appealing.)

Monday, December 20, 2004

IRAQ ELECTIONS BLOG. Link-o-rama. Via The Corner.
I AM LORD VOLDEMORT!: Lord Voldemort: INTP. INTPs are inventive, logical, and ambitious. They see elements of the world around them as things to be shaped by their hand into something more useful. INTPs have strong principles and will defend them vigorously if they're challenged.

Harry Potter Meyers-Briggs thing

(Always wanted to be the Dark Lord when I grew up.)

Friday, December 17, 2004

SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND SONGS OF EXPERIENCE: Recently a young woman cited Ani DiFranco as a role model, and affirmed her belief in the abortion license. This has been one of DiFranco's causes for a while. But I couldn't help thinking of some lyrics that don't exactly fit in to the whole "it's not a child, it's a choice" worldview. ...I have a very hard time maintaining anything close to a stable personal identity over time; I doubt and regret actions almost as soon as I take them. And so it's all the more striking to me that since spring of 1997, when I first started thinking I might have to oppose abortion, I have only become more convinced that the pro-life stance is the stance of human rights, hope, social justice, and love of embodied rather than abstracted life.
I COULD RING A DINNER BELL. That's the missing line from "Obedience School." I'm a moron.

(I do actually have something substantive to say, but I'm too tired to say it now. Expect it sometime before 3 AM EST.)
...With the Geneva Conventions out of the way, Gonzales then asked the Office of Legal Counsel to analyze the government's obligations under the Federal Torture Act.

The OLC responded with an infamous 50-page memo (Aug. 1, 2002) purporting to show that the president and his subordinates had legal permission to use torture. The memo defined torture so narrowly as to include only treatment equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying crippling injury, organ failure, or death; it proposed that U.S. torturers could invoke concepts of self-defense and necessity as a defense against criminal prosecution; and it maintained that the president has constitutional authority to order any kind of torture he deems necessary in times of war.

Moreover, the memo itemized specific techniques that it argued would not constitute torture under its interpretation of the Federal Torture Act. These include mind-altering drugs, wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise, sleep deprivation, deprivation of food and drink, shaking, the "frog-crouch" and the "Shabach" (a combination of techniques including prolonged stress positions and loud noise).

PET SHOP BOYS SONG-BY-SONG COMMENTARY. Neat! Via the Yale Free Press blog.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

I AM MANDRAKE!: "People find you purgative and difficult to take. In large doses you drive them insane."

Which herb are you?
A prosperous businessman didn't think he was entitled to his 2004 Social Security payments, so he became an early Santa Claus for the Salvation Army.

Last week, the man dropped a check for $14,845 into a bell ringer's red kettle outside a bookstore in downtown Minneapolis. ...

He noted the donation was tax deductible, adding, "Undoubtedly, the Salvation Army will make more productive use of the money than would be the case if I returned it to the government."


Tuesday, December 14, 2004

"HER WEASEL-LIKE LOINS": This year's Bad Sex Awards, for stunningly crapulent literary depictions of intimate congress.

Monday, December 13, 2004

When most parents have a baby, they spend months dreaming about what their bundle of joy will look like. Will she look like mom? Will he have dad's eyes? But for one local Navy family, the birth of their daughter didn't give them the answers to those questions. Their daughter was born without a face. ...

It's a life-long process that's draining for Tammy and Tom. Even still, they're thankful and full of love for their sweet child.

"God never gives you more than you can handle. I figure she has a lot to show everyone... to show the world," says Tom.

more, inc. information on donating to the family

Via Amy Welborn

Saturday, December 11, 2004

"ABERDEEN": More Netflixness. More scattered thoughts:
1. The plot: A hard-charging young lawyeress (Latin name: Barracuda) gets a phone call from her dying mother, begging her to fetch her estranged alcoholic father from Norway to Aberdeen for a final reunion. Now that you know the plot, you can probably write the script yourself and be just as original, or not, as the filmmakers.

2. Europeans need to learn that censorship can sometimes substitute for artistic judgment. Or to put it another way, just because you can show full male frontal nudity and female partial nudity doesn't mean it would actually enhance the storytelling. The nudity not only did not help; it actively detracted, as I found myself wondering why Scottish women apparently felt no need to wear bras. Stupid, stupid movie!

3. This movie also serves as an object lesson in Reasons to Avoid Cliche: Cliches make you say things you probably don't mean. I spent a good portion of the movie wondering whether this would be a flick where the ambitious woman was punished for her desires. Ultimately I think that's not true (the daughter and her father are mirrored, and it's hard to say who reaps more punishment and who deserves what, which is how fiction should work), but anyone who wanted to read "Aberdeen" that way would find ample evidence. That's because the scriptwriter relied on dumb grasping-lawyeress cliches. This is a minor spoiler: The daughter's career situation never gets resolved. That suggests to me that the scriptwriter simply didn't realize that he was setting her up for a standard punished-feminine-ambition plotline. But he bought into it anyway, by buying into the cliche that if you want to depict a woman unable to expose herself to Love, you should a) give her a lucrative career and b) show us her breasts. I don't think the film is trying to making a misogynist point, even subconsciously. But the cliches push it into that corner because those cliches spring from a misogynist culture, and a smarter writer would have avoided this trap.

4. Nonetheless. "Aberdeen" is a moving father-daughter film starring Lena Headey. Since Headey is a terrific actress, it's a good movie. Stellan Skarsgaard is also good as her father. And I am a complete sucker for father-daughter films. And the music is wonderful. Basically, I can't recommend this movie. But if you want father-daughterness and you do not mind a degree of cliche, this is worth your time. I was won over, then annoyed, then won over, then annoyed again. Overall, I'm glad I saw it, but mostly because now I know Lena Headey is amazing.
I was born in Liverpool, down by the docks,
Religion was Catholic, occupation: blogwatch...

Dappled Things: Bare-essential books for seekers. "My intended audience are those people who are genuinely interested in Catholicism and open-minded, but really don't know enough to have a well-grounded opinion." These things are always so personal; I didn't get much out of Mere Christianity, but that may be because I'd heard many of the points before, from friends who'd read Lewis. I second the recommendation of The Great Divorce, and would add The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed. For Chesterton I was most struck by his two saint biographies, The Dumb Ox: St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi. The latter is especially powerful. I also got a lot out of St. Anselm's Cur Deus Homo (his treatise on the Incarnation), but that's anything but a universal taste. If you happen to be a fan of the later Platonic dialogues who is also obsessed with whether or not justice and mercy can be reconciled, check out CDH. Oh and yes, I love Augustine's Confessions; Peter Brown's biography, Augustine of Hippo, is also fantastic.

Sed Contra: Who made your Christmas lights? As always, more here.
Between me and the world,
You are a picture frame, a window...
--Bei Dao, From the North Island

Friday, December 10, 2004

KESHER TALK WRITES: "I made this entry for all the blogging and news links about the Spirit of America tour with Omar and Mohammed Ali, the bloggers of Iraq the Model." Round-up is here.
Today's bad poetry is tomorrow's bad politics.
--The Rat, who could use your prayers as she takes the GRE tomorrow.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

LEND ME A SPOON, AND I WILL EAT OF IT MYSELF!: I forget which Elizabethan revenge tragedy that Tickish line is actually from. (Does it matter?) Anyway, apparently someone made a movie of The Revengers Tragedy, and you can get commentary on the movie and the genre here.
YOU/SHE: Mandatory Minimum Sentence. This is an Art of Fiction writing exercise (250-word-long sentence), and also an Anthropomorfic (kinda), and really, a 250-word-long cop-out. But I like it and intend to mine it for future use. It's also a kissing cousin of the story that eventually became "A Separated Soul." Clicky clicky.
"THE TRAGIC SIDEKICK: SHAKESPEARE AND THE SUBVERSION OF THE HEROIC IDEAL": This is my senior essay from high school. It was really, really important to me at the time; if you knew me as a college freshman (especially if you're the Old Oligarch), you might recognize some of the arguments, preferences, and catchphrases. It's wild to compare this piece to my Crisis magazine article on Christianity and children's fantasy: The implied worldviews are almost opposite. I think a lot of my fiction (and a lot of my life!) is a negotiation between this essay and the Crisis piece.

The essay goes on for the next few posts, with the last one titled (helpfully) "End." I fixed a spelling error but did not clean up the grammar or prune all those d--n semicolons.

I also want you all to know that I now strongly disagree with the paragraph on death in Hamlet (although I'll still stand behind the comments on Fortinbras). Anyway, other people have probably said all of this better, but I haven't read those pieces, so maybe you haven't either. Enjoy....

If the typical tragedy or history play were a solar system, the hero-king would be its sun, and all the other characters satellites. A carping, anti-heroic figure on the margins of the action might add some irregularity to their orbits, but there would never be any question of where the center of gravity lay. Shakespeare, however, took the standard versions of the marginal figure left over from morality plays, and gave them so many new attributes that he profoundly shifted the weight of his plays. By giving these malcontents and Vice-figures intelligence, a sense of honor by their own un-heroic lights, and dramatic importance, he created a new type of marginal character, represented by Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Falstaff in the Henry IV and Henry V plays, and the Fool in King Lear. This character is distinguished by his great vigor and lust for life, tempered by recognition of life's underside of fear and decline; cynicism about power, glory, "the good death," and the other abstract ideals of the heroes; a way with words which moves beyond the malcontent's insults into verbal acrobatics; and devotion to the hero even though his view of the world is the opposite of the hero's. This new marginal figure is still the ironic commenter who sees through the parades of nobility that the hero presents, but Shakespeare develops him into a fully-fleshed character with a personality as bold and multifaceted as the hero's, if not in some cases more so. Shakespeare gave the sidekick the freedom to be complicated, and often to speak the truths that the hero ignores. This shift of weight destabilizes the plays, knocks them free of their form, and allows the playwright to comment on that form through the sidekick's words far more powerfully than he could have through the earlier malcontent and Vice archetypes. The development of a marginal voice which rivaled the hero's gave the best of Shakespeare's work the mercurial quality which distinguishes it from more ordinary drama. Yet the hero remained the sun, and the deaths of the marginal characters served only to support his story, until Shakespeare took the final step in the development of his new archetype and placed one of them at the center of a play, completely breaking free of the constraints of his form. In Hamlet, a character who is a variation on earlier Shakespearean marginal figures is forced into the hero's role, and the tragic sidekick must try to carry the burden of the tragic hero.

Shakespeare used a few versions of the simpler malcontent character throughout his career. The bilious murderers in Macbeth are the most one-dimensional representatives of this type, and the griping, syphilitic Thersites of Troilus and Cressida fits the case even better. Lear's Fool is an expansion of this type, the mocker on the sidelines who points out the follies of the powerful. The kinship of the morality-play figure of Vice to the Shakespearean tragic sidekick can be seen most clearly in Falstaff, whose outward appearance is an exact copy of the old, corpulent misleader of youth familiar from plays such as The Castell of Perseverance (c. 1425) and Nature of the Four Elements (1519). He seems to be nothing more than "Sensual Appetyte," a lecher, glutton, and coward. In Henry IV, part 1 Poins places him squarely in this tradition--"Jack! how agrees the devil and thee about the soul, that thou soldest him on Good Friday last, for a cup of Madeira and a cold capon's leg?" (I.ii.111-3) Mercutio, though he derives more from the malcontent than from the Vice-figure, can also be seen in this light, as Romeo moves from bawdy punning with him to a more chaste love for Juliet.

Shakespeare's plays work counter to the morality plays in their presentation of these characters, however, whether he draws from the archetype of the malcontent or that of Vice. His marginal characters still have the flaws which distinguished their predecessors--the Fool's mockery, Mercutio's low humor and reckless temper, Falstaff's boasting and dissolution--but Shakespeare does not present these faults as the entirety of their personalities. He does not even present the flaws as wrong most of the time, since they serve his purpose of giving an alternate, un-heroic view of the world. The Fool's songs and riddles, which spring from the malcontent tradition, are in fact the voice of truth in a story dominated by the madness of Lear and his daughters; Mercutio's hot temper and sexual puns are part of his vitality and passionate living; Falstaff's drinking, gluttony, lust, and cowardice in battle all arise from his desire to satisfy his body and defy his approaching death. As he puts it, he may steal, but that is his vocation, and "'tis no sin for a man to labor in his vocation" (1H4, I.ii.101).
MERCUTIO: The characters who most perfectly fits the mold of the complex marginal figure both cynical and in his own way honorable is Mercutio, the sidekick whose role Shakespeare complicates with imagination and a sense of his own tragedy. His puns, his mockery of Romeo's tragic-love mopiness, his hotheadedness, and his verbal ingenuity are all marks of the new archetype that Shakespeare was creating. Previous malcontents could not come within miles of his expressive power, because that would have taken the focus away from the hero, but Mercutio's speech, as Benvolio puts it, "blows us from ourselves" (I.iv.111). When we first see him, he is urging Romeo to give up sighing over Rosaline; his tone is both coaxing and mocking when he declares, "You are a lover. Borrow Cupid's wings/And soar with them above a common bound" (I.iv.17-8). He quickly displays his talent for barely-veiled bawdiness as well, in his counsel to "Prick love for pricking" (I.iv.28). He will continue these jokes throughout the first and second acts, and often without any veil at all, as with his laughing declaration, "O Romeo, that she were, O, that she were/An open-arse, thou a pop'rin pear" (II.ii.41-2). This vulgarity is contrasted with the chaste love of the balcony scene which immediately follows it, but Shakespeare does not moralize about which image of love is better. For Mercutio, the romantic, sighing love is a four-letter word, a "mire"; he is placed opposite Romeo from the beginning, making fun of the idealization of Love which drives Romeo and the play.

The audience does not hear his name until after the Queen Mab speech, which seems fitting since until that extraordinary speech we have no reason to pay more attention to him than to any of Romeo's other companions. With his fireworks description of "the fairies' midwife," he presents a vivid and startling picture of the world which is entirely unlike any other in the play. It starts with his teasing Romeo over his lovelorn friend's bad dreams, but at the mention of Queen Mab moves into a much stranger realm in which Mercutio seems to get drunk on his own creativity, his ability to create images and phrases which capture his two audiences' full attention--the audience in the theater seats, and the audience in the Verona streets. His portraiture--"Her collars of the moonshine's wat'ry beams,/Her whip of cricket's bone, the lash of film..." (I.iv.67-8)--then gives way to a depiction of an entire society of lovers, courtiers, lawyers, parsons. At first his society dreams of contentment, of money and kisses and ambitions fulfilled, but the foreboding in his words begins to grow. Its first hint comes in the mention of "the angry Mab" who "oft... with blisters plagues" ladies instead of showering them with kisses (I.iv.80); then, after a brief interlude of peace with the dreaming courtiers and parsons, Mercutio's thoughts turn to the soldier who dreams of "cutting foreign throats,/Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades" (I.iv.88-9). Although the soldier also dreams of "healths five fathoms deep," he wakes from his dream frightened enough to "swear[] a prayer or two" before he can fall asleep again (I.iv.90-2). Now the dream-giving queen has become a "hag," who causes misfortune by tangling the horses' manes, and causes women pain in childbirth. Romeo notices the sudden sharp melancholy of his thoughts, and cuts him off--"Thou talk'st of nothing" (I.iv.102). Mercutio returns to himself (giving proof to his name, derived from Mercury), agreeing that his words were "nothing but vain fantasy" (I.iv.105), but the audience remains unconvinced. Mercutio's troubled vision of the world sets the scene not so much for the deaths of the lovers but for his own death, which has no great theme like love or familial honor to dilute its bitterness.

That death reinforces Mercutio's role as tragic sidekick; his duel with Tybalt comes about due not only to his own rashness (from his first words in the scene he is itching for a fight) but also to his loyalty to Romeo, and, of course, to the quarrel between the two houses, which was never his quarrel in the first place. Mercutio provokes Tybalt carelessly, taking offense at every word, but Tybalt finally challenges Romeo instead of him. Mercutio responds to this in an offhand fashion, as if he were still jousting with Romeo, saying that he wants from Tybalt "nothing but one of your nine lives" (III.i.79), and he does not seem to have any sense that the duel could go awry. When he is stabbed, his turn from lighthearted to bitter is immediate and drastic, as if the bitterness had been waiting to appear. His death speech is as dramatic as any hero's, but its content is decidedly un-heroic. His words are full of the acerbic humor in the pun on "a grave man," the anger at the futility of his death in his repeated cries of "A plague o' both your houses!", and the understanding of the physical reality of death in his flat statement, "They have made worms' meat of me." When Romeo begins to speak, he gives Mercutio two and a half lines before moving on to his own "reputation stained/With Tybalt's slander" (III.i.116-7). When he talks of the dead man later in the scene, he acts as if Mercutio's hovering soul would want him to defend his honor and fight with Tybalt, when Mercutio's last words suggested that such abstract notions of honor and feuds were what had killed him in the first place. The death speech points out the essential differences between Mercutio's tragedy and Romeo's--and shows why Mercutio's, though arguably the more interesting, is not the one in the title. Mercutio's bitterness in dying came from his understanding of his position as a sidekick; he knew that he was dying to support other people's romantic notions of love and honor, other people's stories rather than his own.
FALSTAFF: Sir John Falstaff's story is also shaped by his role as a sidekick to Prince Hal, and in his case his death is not even a precursor of a larger tragedy but in fact a precursor of Hal's triumph. Falstaff shares many other characteristics with Mercutio--and manages to steal Hal's fire even more often than Mercutio stole Romeo's--but adds to them a greater sense of a life lived for the purpose of living, of the satisfaction of the body serving to satisfy the soul. Shakespeare does not present him as a man without a soul, and does not condemn him as Hal and his ministers do; his excesses of the flesh come from his decision to live with gusto. Especially in the second part of Henry IV, he is an old man who wants to enjoy himself and to cheat death for as long as he can. He lives against death; upon Bardolph's reminder that "you are so fretful you cannot live long" (1H4 III.iii.11), he agrees but quickly turns his attention to bawdy songs, merrymaking, and jests about his earlier life of "virtue," in which he "went to a bawdy-house not above once in a quarter--of an hour" (1H4 III.iii.15-6). He denies that he is a sinner on the grounds that "If to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine are to be loved" (1H4 II.iv.465-8). Not just his vitality, but also his quick wit and his love for Hal give the lie to the Prince's insinuations that he is merely a lump of fat and bad wine. Their relationship starts off jokingly and only slightly more antagonistic than Romeo and Mercutio's; just as Romeo, without malice, describes his friend as "A gentleman... that loves to hear himself talk and will speak more in a minute than he will stand to in a month" (II.iv.149-51), so Hal disparages Falstaff as "so fat-witted... that thou hast forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst truly know" (1H4 I.ii.2-5) without the audience hearing any real discord. Falstaff responds to Hal's barbs in Mercutio's fashion, with his cascades of words, and does Mercutio one better by mixing in classical, Biblical, and canting references to create a wryly grandiloquent manner of speaking. He also gets his own digs in at Hal, saying that "grace thou wilt have none... not so much as will serve to be prologue to an egg and butter" (1H4 I.ii.18-21) and overturning the conventions of his morality-play forebears by proclaiming that Hal is "indeed able to corrupt a saint" and has "done much harm upon me... God forgive thee for it" (1H4 I.ii.88-90). In fact, both Falstaff and Hal subvert the morality-play framework; Vice is not nearly so vicious, nor Virtue so virtuous, as we might expect. Falstaff claims that "Company, villainous company, hath been the spoil of me" (1H4 III.iii.9-10), turning the "youth is corrupted by aged sin, and at last repents" storyline on its head.

As the representative of the un-heroic, anti-abstract faith, Falstaff provides not only a lusty vitality but also a running commentary on heroes, ideals, and politics which is far more subtle and sophisticated than the earlier malcontent archetype could have presented. Just as he undermines the conventions of the morality play with his wit and his good-hearted loyalty, he also undermines the conventions of the morality play with his wit and his good-hearted loyalty, he also undermines the conventions of the history play, in which the main purpose is the glorification of the state. While Hal, once he becomes Henry V, is given all the reverent, mythologizing treatment befitting a king and a leader in war, throughout the first two plays Falstaff has been there to deflate all the grand ideals of national honor and royal greatness. He has no respect for Prince Henry, saying, "By the Lord, I'll be a traitor then, when thou art king" (1H4 I.ii.141); his love is for Hal the man, not the crown that man will wear. To him, the next king of England is "the most comparative rascalliest sweet young prince" (1H4 I.ii.78-9), well-loved but not revered. He pokes fun at the idea that kings are any better than his band of thieves: "There's neither honesty, manhood, nor good fellowship in three, nor thou cam'st not of the blood royal, if thou darest not stand for ten shillings" (1H4 I.ii.135-7). In this terrific overturning sentence, Hal's willingness to rob is a proof of his royalty. Falstaff shows similar irreverence toward every pillar of a stable society; he talks of "the rusty curb of old father Antic the law" (1H4 I.ii.59), and even in a solemn conference of war he is irrepressible, responding to Worcester's "I have not sought the day of this dislike" with his own "Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it" (1H4 V.i.26, 28). Falstaff has a well-developed morality of his own, one in which pleasure is valued higher than battlefield honor. When it comes to taking action, "I were better to be eaten to death with a rust than to be scoured to nothing with perpetual motion" (2H4 I.ii.219-21). His view of Hal's pursuit of glory is summed up in the line, "I would 'twere bed-time, Hal, and all well" (1H4 V.i.125). For honor he can say only,

Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is honour? A word. ...What is that word honour? Air. ...Who hath it? He that died a-Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ...Therefore I'll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon--and so ends my catechism. (1H4 V.ii.131-41)
In all Henry V's fiery words about honor, victory, and the glory of England, there is nothing which can answer this speech.

Hal's rejection of Falstaff, which was in the workings from their first scene together, overshadows the play and turns Sir John's story into what would be a tragedy, if only the lusty knight were the hero. Hal sees his time with Falstaff as an exhilarating sojourn in Vice, like a trip to a foreign country, and he is preparing for his return home all the time that he is there. From the first, his verbal thrusts at Falstaff are far more threatening than anything he receives in return; her talks of "the ridge of the gallows" (1H4 I.ii.38), the buff jerkin of the constable which is "a most sweet robe of durance" (1H4 I.ii.42) and the "suits" obtained by the hangman from felons, all in his first scene with Falstaff. Falstaff knows that his own position is tenuous in a way that Hal's never will be; he has good reason to say, "as thou art prince, I fear thee as I fear the roaring of the lion's whelp" (1H4 III.iii.145-6). Hal readily acknowledges this difference: "I am good friends with my father and may do anything" (1H4 III.iii.180). When Hal has Falstaff play at being the rebellious prince, while he pretends to be his own father the King, no one pays attention to his promise to banish Falstaff, set out so plainly--"I do, I will" (1H4 II.iv.475)--as to be unbelievable; yet it comes to pass, because Hal wills it. By the second part of Henry IV, Falstaff's powers are failing him in Hal's absence; the Lord Chief Justice gives his wits more trouble than he expected, and Doll Tearsheet talks as if he is soon to die and must "patch up [his] old body for heaven" (2H4 II.iv.229-30). When at last the rejection comes, it is public and cruel, with Hal naming Falstaff "that vain man" (2H4 V.v.43) and banishing him, "Not to come near our person by ten mile" (2H4 V.v.65). Although Hal provides Falstaff with money and a chance at reinstatement if he "reform" (which is unimaginable), it is the banishment which breaks Sir John's heart; the thieves may have joked about hanging, but the upright King Henry V proved to be Falstaff's gallows in the end. Henry goes on to become his old companion's opposite; when Henry V opens, Canterbury remarks that "Consideration like an angel came/And whipped th'offending Adam out of him,/Leaving his body as a paradise" (I.i.28-30)--nothing could be further from old Falstaff, who indulged his body but never attempted to purify it. Hal's reformation, which required the rejection of Falstaff, "killed his heart" (II.i.79), leaving it "fracted and corroborate" (II.i.112), and causing his death. Henry goes on to win glory and a wife in his war with France, but the figure which provided the heart of the two earlier plays has gone. In Henry IV, part 1 Falstaff warned Hal, "Banish plump Jack, and you banish all the world" (II.iv.473-4); what the Prince banished when he became King was in fact a way of seeing the world which Shakespeare brought to prominence and which Falstaff embodied, the viewpoint of the tragic sidekick.
THE FOOL: The Fool in King Lear is not nearly as fully fleshed out as Falstaff or even Mercutio, and in function is much closer to the older form of the malcontent which Shakespeare was using as his base. However, he shares with the two larger characters his ironic sense of a truth which often runs counter to the truth of heroes. In King Lear Shakespeare explores the possibilities of marginal characters, reshaping the malcontent archestpe in several different ways; not just the Fool, but Edmund (as the Iago-like expansion of the malcontent's lively bitterness) and Edgar are variations on that theme. The Fool is distinguished from these other narginal commenters by his wit, which includes the sexual punning in which Mercutio reveled, and by his wry commentary on the faults of power. His jibes about power, truth, and fools are far less oblique though no less witty than Falstaff's pokes at honor and royalty, and less bitter though more embellished than Mercutio's attack on the feud of honor that caused his meaningless death. The Fool, loyal to Lear and inseparable from him, nonetheless has a view of the throne which not even the other supporters of Cordelia share. His loyalty is made clear in lines like his "advice" to Kent, "Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following; but the great one that goes upward, let him draw thee after" (II.iv.72-5). This is advice for "none but knaves" (II.iv.76-7), and "The knave turns fool that runs away;/The fool no knave, perdy" (II.iv.84-5). When Lear goes out into the storm, the Fool is there to coax him inside, to keep life in a body whose owner is overcome with madness and grief. He knows the danger of Lear's dangerous combination of madness and power, and states it whenever he appears in the play: " thou canst not smile as the wind sits, thou'lt catch cold shortly" (I.iv.103-4). His relationship with Lear is often as dicey as Falstaff's with Hal, and he, like the lusty knight, seems incapable of changing his tune; when the king threatens him, he responds, "I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. They'll have me whipped for speaking true, thou'lt have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace. I had rather be any kind o' thing than a fool; and yet I would not be thee, nuncle" (I.iv.186-91). In this speech the Fool not only defuses Lear's anger with his wit, but even continues to make the same kind of pointed remarks that got him in trouble in the first place. Though his role in the play is far more circumscribed than those of Mercutio and Falstaff, he, like them, represents "the loyal opposition" to the ideals of the heroes.
HAMLET: If in King Lear the tragic sidekick's role is restricted by the larger story, in Hamlet his role expands to become the central story. In creating Hamlet, and shoving him into the role of a revenger, Shakespeare thrusts his new type of marginal character onto the center stage. Hamlet's character is in many ways an extension of Mercutio; he has a similar ironic view of the world, the same sense of being on the margins (he, unlike Shakespeare's other tragic heroes, does not seem to know the title of his play), and the same dilemma of a vigorous intellect facing the physical reality of death. At the beginning of the play Hamlet clearly sees himself in Mercutio's role, as the ironic commenter on the fringes of the Danish court, his separation from the spies and speechmakers around him made more obvious by his mourning clothes. His first words, "A little more than kin and less than kind" (I.ii.67), would have made Mercutio grin with their mixture of bitterness and ironic humor. Like Mercutio, he never loses this sense of humor, whether explaining to Horatio that Claudius and Gertrude married immediately after old Hamlet's death so that "The funeral baked meats" could "coldly furnish forth the marriage tables" (I.ii.187-8) or mocking Osric's position at court by calling him "spacious in the possession of dirt" (V.ii.101). Like Falstaff, he uses his wit and imagination as a defense against Claudius's schemes and surveillance, as when he befuddles Polonius by calling the old man a "fishmonger" (II.ii.190). His wit, like that of his predecessors, also acknowledges the danger underlying its humor; Hamlet's answer to Polonius's question, "Will you walk out of the air, my lord?", is "Into my grave?" (II.ii.224-5)--an entirely justified and not only ironic response. He does not see himself as a marginal figure separate from the play's center; he, like the Fool, Mercutio, and Falstaff, has too much at stake to be a Thersites-like griper or malcontent. Unlike those characters, however, he wants to fill the role of the hero, and knows that he cannot. Throughout the play he compares himself to his models of heroism, whether on the stage or the battlefield, and he never measures up; this self-image as tragic sidekick rather than tragic hero becomes part of his conflict.

The treatment of death in Hamlet fits better with Mercutio or Falstaff's opinions of it than Romeo or Hal's. Although through most of the play Hamlet is caught up in considerations of the metaphysical aspects of death, toward the end he begins to take a far less abstracted view of death; it becomes not "sleep" or "The undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveler returns" (III.i.72, 87-8), but simply the end of the body and the mind, inevitable and ignoble. The wit which he shares with the tragic sidekicks serves him well when he finally must come to terms with the reality of his own approaching death; he comes in Act V not only to the calm fatalism of "If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come" (V.ii.234-6), but also the appreciation of the physical comedy of death in the graveyard scene. The play's grim ending accords with Hamlet's disillusionment with the idea of the "noble death." Although there is an ooutward appearance of justice and symmetry, with Laertes killed "as a woodcock to mine own springe" (V.ii.336) and Claudius dead by "a poison tempered by himself" (V.ii.360), the audience does not leave feeling that justice has been served and Hamlet has died defending his father's honor against the usurper. Fortinbras's final summation of Hamlet's character gets him completely wrong, saying that he would "have proved most royal" and that "the soldier's music and the rite of war/Speak loudly for him" (V.ii.444-6). Fortinbras, attempting to cast Hamlet as a tragic hero, erases the true picture of Hamlet as a brilliant, humorous man tormented by his inability to act as a hero, his lingering on the margins of his own tragedy.

In moving the marginal character to the center of the play, Shakespeare makes explicit the criticisms of both tragic form and heroism which are implicit in the creation of the Mercutio-Falstaff archetype. By forcing a character who cannot play the tragic hero's role into the tragic hero's story, Shakespeare points out the artificiality of more typical tragedies; he throws the play off balance, calling into question the assumptions underlying other tragedies. In Hamlet, pursuit of abstractions like heroism and revenge leads only to meaningless deaths, from the mistaken killing of Polonius to the carnage which ends the play. Hamlet, knowing that his actions will have consequences, must untangle the possible results of his actions and weigh their justifications in a way that the tragic hero can simply avoid; he can never assume that he is in the right. He even admires Fortinbras, who is much more of a hero-type than he is, praising the other prince's "spirit with divine ambition puffed" (IV.iv.52). When he compares his own inaction and confusion to the player who "But in a fiction, in a dream of passion" (II.ii.579) can take heroic action while he cannot, Shakespeare makes the audience understand both his anguish and the falseness of his model. In Hamlet heroism itself becomes entirely theatrical: even a murderer like Claudius can wrap himself in kingly glory; even a thoughtless warmonger like Fortinbras can seem valiant. Shakespeare both connects heroic ideals and theatrical pretense, and places their "un-theatrical" (one of the play's paradoxes is that its central character insists that he is not an actor) and un-heroic opposite at the center of the play. In this way he overturns the audience's view of the hero even more profoundly than he did with Mercutio and Falstaff, who eventually had to move aside so that the hero could emerge.
END: Hamlet is the culmination of Shakespeare's expansion of the marginal, malcontent-Vice character. By creating the archetype of the tragic sidekick, he was able to show a view of the world which neither a hero nor a more narrowly-conceived malcontent could provide; he could also explore ideas of heroism and tragedy which more stable, hero-centered plays could only suggest. Falstaff and Mercutio introduce ambivalence into plays which, without them, would have dismayingly simple plots; because they cannot be dismissed with moralizing or treated as clowns, they destabilize not only the plays in which they appear but the entire enterprise of writing heroic characters. Though they are loyal to the heroes, they call into question the ideals of heroism and all the abstract notions that heroes defend; this tension between loyalty and cynicism is shared by the plays themselves, which present the heroic ideal but give equal attention and imagination to its heretics. The orbits of Shakespeare's plays are constantly shifting, moving around the hero-sun but thrown off course by the powerful pull of the sidekick's mercurial star.
"LONE STAR": Another recent Netflix gem. I don't have the mental energy to put together a nicely-structured post, so here are some scattered thoughts, in no real order:
1. This movie made me realize how much I love the "investigating a long-past crime" storyline. Several of my favorite Agatha Christie novels have some variant on this plot; so does Josephine Tey's wonderful Richard III apologia The Daughter of Time. With this plot you get an easy, suspenseful storyline that will pretty much force you to deal with the pull of the past: whether we can escape our histories, families, and cultures, and whether we should want to. You also get a very obvious way to ask, What's the point of the truth? Why dig all this stuff up and cause trouble? And "Lone Star" hits all these points, following the repercussions of an investigation into the death of a corrupt sheriff in a small town on the Texas-Mexico border. It isn't desperately new, but I don't care, because it's important, hooky, and well-done.

2. Lots of people say this movie is "novelistic," and I see what they mean: It's big and baggy and you have to mull for a while to figure out how the many, many plots and subplots reflect back on each other. I'm still not sure I have the timeline right. All the subplots do link up--even the one I'd initially thought might be unnecessary--in complex ways, not over-tidy ones.

3. This movie has great bit parts and minor characters. I always appreciate that. Also some excellent actors; my favorites were Miriam Colon as a ferocious Mexican widow and Joe Morton as a strict colonel.

4. The music is terrific.

5. I'm not sure about this--and I can't make my case without major spoilers--but am I the only one who thinks the final scene contains a disturbing echo of the arguments made by the crazy white school board lady and the redneck barkeep? (CWSBL, by the way, was the only character who felt stereotyped. Oh and maybe Token Indian With Pointless Scene, too.)

6. Token Indian and Frances McDormand needed to have their scenes cut. This is a long movie and these scenes were completely unnecessary. I could also use maybe ten minutes less of the Sam/Pilar love story.

7. Griping aside, this movie is really good. I'm going to make The Rat watch it so we can chew on its themes and meanings a bit.
"THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER": Just watched this. (The French one, not the American.) It's terrific. Yes, it has some of the same over-the-top hyperventilating as most silent movies (the mystic power of magnetism...slow-motion fainting...rutting toads), but mostly it's intense, menacing, and feverishly beautiful. I was spellbound. Small humans lost in big sets reminiscent of Giacometti's "The Palace at 4 a.m."; a banister made of branches and chains; a corpse (possibly) in a wedding dress; great shots of leaves rushing along the floor; startling portrait's-eye view of the deranged painter Roderick Usher; clutching hands and living paintings.

The best thing, though, was the music. I don't know whether it's unique to the version I saw (via Netflix), with the title cards read in heavily French-accented English. Anyway, it's amazing: tense, sometimes febrile, always making a slow and dreamlike movie feel propulsive and suspenseful.
POETRY WEDNESDAY (FOR CERTAIN VALUES OF WEDNESDAY): From Ernest Dowson, "Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae."

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
Did you think I would stand here and lie
While our blogwatch was passing us by?

Angevin: THE GASHLYSPEARE TINIES. Gorey + Shakespeare = pure twisted genius.
A is for Antigonus, lunch for a bear
B is for Banquo (but not for his heir)...
you know you must click.

New York finally begins moderating its insane drug laws. Orin Kerr, at the Volokh Conspiracy, points out why this is a very good thing even if you don't support legalization. (First link via Hit & Run.)

And more good news, from South Carolina: "Gov. Mark Sanford, a conservative Republican, and Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg, a liberal Democrat, disagree on many issues, but not when it comes to regulating people who braid others' hair." (more) Via SRD.
Every true apprentice writer has, however he may try to keep it secret even from himself, only one major goal: glory.
--The Art of Fiction

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Searching for Mr. Right,
Blogwatching half the night...

Amptoons on a couple whose son was taken by Protective Services solely because the couple is blind. (The child is home now, due to an outcry by disability activists.) This article includes another blind couple describing how they are raising their two children.

Oxblog: "Sickened as I was like other observers by the scenes which appeared over the summer from Abu Ghraib, I'm left by the onset of Charles Graner's trial by court-martial in Fort Hood, Texas with a sense that there ought to be more coverage in the press on the reflection Abu Ghraib casts on American prisons at home." Yes, yes, yes. I will write this piece if somebody wants to pay me for it.

Stuart Taylor looks at the recent "affirmative action in law schools is reducing the number of black lawyers" study. (Via How Appealing.)

And three great links, from different angles, all touching to one extent or another on hardness of heart (a recurrent ailment over here):

Amy Welborn on the Memorare:

...It is just a fact of life that God is hard to fathom, and the further we push God away, the more difficult it becomes. Like a kid buried so deep in lies he can’t look his parents in the face, like a couple whose relationship is so defined by externals, whose biggest fear is actually having to be alone together and having to talk, we can be so buried in our own baggage that God's voice is nothing but the faintest echo.

We need an intervention. We need mediation. We need someone we trust, someone who has something in common with us to help us see ourselves as we really are and for what we could be. The deceitful kid needs to hear from someone who told the truth to his parents and lived to tell the story. The couple needs a smart-aleck daughter or a quietly observant friend to say, "Why did you guys get married, anyway?"

And the hardened criminal might just need a mother.


Dappled Things on God's justice.

David Morrison on participation and authority:
The passage assumes that the blind will, in fact, want their sight back and the deaf to hear again, the lame to walk properly and dumb to speak. But one of the most perverse aspects of human pride is that sometimes we would really rather sit in the darkness of our own weakness, obstinacy and sin than accept the healing God wants to give us. Sometimes the Gospel passage where Jesus asks someone if they want to be healed before He heals them can jar us, of course they want to be healed, we can sometimes think. But we don't know that. Being healed, participating in our own salvation, can bring all sorts of unexpected costs and burdens and sorrows. So often we can focus our prayer on the symptoms of the troubles we face and not on having the commitment to not only be rid of them, but to live different lives once we are rid of them, lives sometimes with deeper and more daunting responsibilities.


Also, if you pray, please pray for the women I have counseled in the past month. It's been an unusually difficult month. (If you wanted to pray for me, too, I wouldn't complain!) I will be praying that my readers have a blessed Advent.

Wednesday is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Go to church!

Friday, December 03, 2004

I see your true colors blogging through,
I see your true colors, and that's why I watch you...

Hugo Schwyzer: "And I am equally prepared to defend the proposition that since English common law had a greater impact upon our contemporary society than legal codes in medieval Mali, they ought to spend more time on the former. Good historians prioritize and rank; good historians draw distinctions, and then engage in vigorous debates with their colleagues about those distinctions."

Also, in case it got lost below those Augustine and Spenser posts, let me link again to this site, where you can email your senators about Alberto Gonzales's support for torture.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

"SURRENDER" IS THE FIRST MOVEMENT OF LOVE: Beautiful, truly moving post on confession, from a blogging priest. Found it while looking for something else. If you are trying to figure out the Catholic Church or the nature of mercy, this is a must-read; so I'm linking it again.
IT JUST TAKES A BEAT/TO TURN IT AROUND: Oh, "The Essential Cyndi Lauper" is the most amazing thing on earth. I'm so in love. There's one dud ("Sisters of Avalon," whatever, please stop reading Mercedes Lackey while smoking pot) and one mediocrity ("Hatful of Stars," shrug), but everything else is sparkling liquid Cyndi. She has the voice that every '80s pop diva (with the possible exception of Annie Lennox and the definite non-exception of Madonna) wanted. She can go from squeaky to cigarettes-and-whiskey in a microsecond. She's the Freaky Freezies of glamour. She's television melodrama as grand epic, caterwauling all her torch songs.

Also, you should check out the Young Marble Giants' "Colossal Youth." Like cold coffee with your best friend at three in the morning. Guitar and bass as percussion; shifting, lonesome, allusive lyrics; New Wave cosmopolitan cool, a woman whose dress doesn't match her high heels drinking something blue at the bar. Don't you want to go over and get her number?

And Elvis Costello seems to work on me the way marijuana is supposed to: first time, blah, after that it's all good. Recently rediscovered "Trust" and now cannot stop playing it. (Actual pot does a whole lotta nothing for me.) You don't need the extra bonus disc, though--too bad, as the recent re-release bonus Elvis discs have typically been great. Not this one, though.
THE SUNFLOWER AND THE ASYMPTOTE: College paper, heavily abridged, on the assumptions behind Augustine's proof of God.

...Augustine makes two kinds of arguments for God's existence, related in their emphasis on a necessary connection between mutable things and an immutable thing. He speaks of God as the "eternal and immutable form which preserves these mutable things from being reduced to nothingness, and preserves them... with their distinct varieties of form... Nothing can 'form' itself, because nothing can give itself what it does not have." So rather than a "first cause" argument, in which God starts everything by creation but might then simply wind it up and let it tick, Augustine presents a more active God, constantly preserving and forming all of creation. This God did not solely create life-in-general, but also dogs, for dogs could not be recognizably doggy without being held together by this form.

Using a similar idea in the moral realm, Augustine says that we naturally seek the good and try to turn towards it, as a heliotropic flower seeks the sun. In fact, we love this sun; Augustine equates "the soul ought to be turned from corruption and converted to incorruption" with "not corruption but incorruption ought to be loved." Although we may willfully turn away from what we conceive as good, that is an unnatural action; Augustine has nothing to say here to the immoralist or the debauchee. The particular ideas of good whic we use to try to fill the category "good" may differ, but for Augustine just the search for something to fill that category is a sign of a mutable being, with mutable reason, reaching toward an immutable God. ...

...This may be a sidestep, from absolute truth swiftly to a God whom he talks about in very Christian terms; in the end he seems to be attempting a proof of a truth greater than ourselves, which by virtue of its perfection is somehow able to shape the world, and which acts as our standard for truth and goodness although we often use a highly distorted version of that standard.

The question of the asymptote arises. Because a curve appears to reach endlessly for a line, must we believe that the line is really there and the curve can touch it? In mathematics, as in theology, we speak of the asymptote reaching for infinity; but for some mathematicians infinity is a useful construct rather than a real property existing outside of the structure of our mathematical theories. Augustine implicitly believes that if almost everyone in the world is reaching toward a particular category--if we all choose certain ways to speak about what it is we want from the world and ourselves--then there must be some real truth there which we are glimpsing. This is his "public property," available to all, and sought by all. It seems that if almost everyone is reaching for some ideal truth, believing that it is graspable, either that truth is real outside of us or we constructed it, as the mathematicians may speak of infinity. It seems we could not have stitched together the idea of the good the way one might stitch a "griffin" out of a crow and a cat, because the materials are not to hand; what can be used to construct an idea of the good? Perhaps by stitching together "unity," "justice," "mercy" we could arrive at such a monster; but we only know to pick those concepts because we generally recognize them already to be good.

[There's quite a bit more, but that's the part I like best. Here's CS Lewis with an acute point, as well.]